About one-third of the way through John Dufresne’s first detective novel, "No Regrets, Coyote," the protagonist nearly slams into one of the book’s many plot diversions: a dead mule in a parking lot.
The moment comes abruptly — with a car slamming its brakes — as Wylie "Coyote" Melville, a therapist and his cop friend, Carlos, drive through a fictional and much-weirder version of Broward County. The grotesqueness of the image, involving a "recently expired mule that had apparently been giving children ‘pony’ rides at yesterday’s parish carnival," is so out-of-hand that it prompts Melville to comment on the absurdity, saying, “It would seem we’re in a Southern novel.”
In fact, "No Regrets, Coyote" is the Dania Beach author's first crime novel, set in a sweltering underworld filled with black comedy, gambling and violent murder, nodding along the way to the best literary practitioners of South Florida noir: Elmore Leonard, Les Standiford, Carl Hiaasen and others. The novel concerns a restaurant owner, Chafin Halliday, who kills his wife and three children in an apparent murder-suicide, although Wylie, trusting his keen intuition, doesn’t buy the alleged motive.
Dufresne's novel, released on July 15, also arrives amid a renaissance of interest in "Florida glare," coined by Adam Gopnik in a June New Yorker article to describe the sleaze, gloom, corruption and murder that accompanies Florida-set mysteries.
"It’s not surprising knowing that South Florida is at the center of crime fiction these days. I think it has been for a long time. We already know South Florida is crazy,” Dufresne says with a laugh. “Florida is exotic to most people, and kind of sexy. People like to read about it, and it’s noted as much for its crime as for its unusual justice, as we’ve found out again just recently."
Dufresne, the author of eight books, including "Louisiana Power and Light" and the crime parody "Naked Came the Manatee" (co-written with Hiassen, Leonard and others), says he wrote “No Regrets, Coyote” because the lure of Florida noir was too amusing to ignore.
"Living in this atmosphere of Florida crime, I thought, 'I need to get in on this quick.' So I’m the newcomer, I guess," says Dufresne, a professor of creative writing at Florida International University. "I even borrowed the opening of the book from all these South Florida guys, like, ‘Let’s have some bodies in the first chapter, and let’s see what happens.' "
And with the mounting bodies arrive several of Dufresne’s aforementioned diversions, gut-punches of noirlike surrealism that arrive fast and unexpected, such as Wylie’s hysterical sister, and at least one otherwise healthy patient who demands a leg amputation because he will "be whole without the extra limb."
"We may need to solve a crime, but we got to figure out how to take care of our father and hysterical sisters, and deal with relationships first," Dufresne says. "I've never been known as a straightforward plot guy, so you’ll often find all these diggressions and asides, which I really enjoy.”
So enjoyable was his fascination with painting a bizarre Broward County, Dufresne says, that his next novel is a planned sequel to "No Regrets, Coyote," which would begin nearly Las Vegas before returning to South Florida.
"It begins in Las Vegas and the desert, where ostensibly there is no law, and it will show the characters getting into familiar shenanigans. I want to examine human trafficking, which is a booming business in Florida as well as in Nevada, along with the sex trade,” Dufresne says. “That also should be fun to write."
John Dufresne will discuss "No Regrets, Coyote" 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2, at Books and Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables). Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com. He will also appear Aug. 15 at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale and Aug. 16 at Murder on the Beach in Delray Beach.